Tuesday, December 18, 2007


Lost in the Post: Why Postal Services May Prove Fatal For Gordon Brown

It’s almost Christmas, and most people in Britain are thinking the same thing: ‘Is that blasted Internet gift shopping going to turn up before I have to go to the in-laws with nothing but a weak smile and some chocolates from the garage?’ Even once posted, who knows; my Mum wasn’t impressed when my birthday present took a month to arrive (awwhh). So spare a thought at this stressful time for the unhappiest person in Britain where the postal service is concerned, whose entire career has been lost in the post (alongside so much of our personal data): Gordon Brown.

Yet Another Fiasco From the Culture of Carelessness

If you’ve managed to look up from biting your nails over the forthcoming Lib Dem Leadership declaration, you’ll have noticed that yesterday the Labour Government got round to admitting a disastrous loss of personal data, again, some months after it was first discovered, again, with nobody having a clue, again. You might have missed it, because this careless was on a smaller scale than the last big one a month ago. This time it’s a mere one-twentieth of the population, rather than half of us. Doesn’t sound so much, does it? Yet three million lives and livelihoods at risk of identity theft is still, as Susan Kramer said, “mind-bending”. Unlike the Labour Minister, she had a practical answer, too:
“Perhaps the answer is we should be holding less data on people or it should automatically be destroyed.
“This constant attempt to gather data, to get more data, to know more about you, to link it more together, all of that it seems to me is what comes into question.”
Don’t worry, though, fraudsters – those three million people are the pick of the bunch. People applying for driving licences, which if you can get hold of them instead are perfectly genuine fake ID! And mostly young adults, which might mean they don’t yet have credit cards, so you can take out their first for them! Well, it’s nice that under Gordon Brown it’s Christmas for someone. Just a pity it’s for the ID thieves. But, say Labour ministers, there’s no need to panic – these ones weren’t lost in the UK, but in America. And we can all be reassured that there’s no organised crime out there.

The newspapers, of course, can’t resist festooning their front pages today with L-plates for the Labour Government. It’s an almost irresistible gag, but it misses the point. This Government are not learners at all. They’ve not learnt anything at all in the decade they’ve had absolute control, in which case they’re never going to learn how to run the country competently. Worse, they’ve got complacent and careless and stopped looking where they’re going because they think they’ve got it sussed. They are not ‘learners’. This is not a new government. It’s one that needs a re-test.

This is a deeply rooted and repeated problem of a careless, arrogant Labour administration that believe they know everything and the public know nothing. They simply don’t care what happens to the public, as long as they can carry on in power. Again and again, they inflict pointless new laws on us that just waste police time, then break their own laws because – well, it can only be because they don’t think the rules apply to them. Laws are just to control the little people, not to constrain big bullies like the Labour Government and the rich friends who slip them dodgy cash. Again and again, they prove they don’t care about individual privacy; the Labour Government must know every detail of our lives, and if that means tossing half the population’s bank details out into the street, Labour thinks it’s a price worth paying. After all, they’re not paying it. But when it comes to their cock-ups, they do whatever they can to make sure we don’t find out. No wonder political culture has become so debased. When the Labour Government is so smug and so reckless at the same time with all of our most personal details, it gives everyone a reason to despise politicians. As Vince Cable said yesterday about enquiries into all these disasters:
“If data and valuable information is consistently lost or stolen or abused, the public completely lose confidence in government in general at all levels.”
The Worst Data Disaster in the History of the World

You’ll remember the appalling disaster that the Labour Government admitted to four weeks ago today – over a month after it happened, though less than a week after they bothered calling in the police and the banks to shut the stable door. It’s worth going over again, because the same Labour Government like to pretend that it was a one-off, that procedures shouldn’t have permitted, and that in any case new procedures make impossible. The trouble is, not only does every subsequent almighty cock-up prove that’s a lie, or at best self-delusional – but so do all the previous failures. The Liberal Democrats, experts, pressure groups and even Parliamentary reports have been warning for years that such disasters were coming, and yet the Labour Government still act as if no-one could possibly have foreseen them.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after the confidential details of junior doctors were published on the Internet in April? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after a CD containing the personal details of fifteen thousand Standard Life customers was lost by HM Revenue and Customs in September? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

Could the Labour Government not have predicted that there might be another data disaster, after a laptop full of ISA account details was stolen from an HMRC car in October? No, the Labour Government claimed, because such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again.

And the same went for the forty-one other HMRC laptops stolen in the previous twelve months, which you can if you like emphasise through your own cutting and pasting for dramatic effect.

So when, completely unpredicted by the Labour Government, they were responsible for the worst data disaster in the history of the world in losing the records of nearly half the UK population, and they claimed that such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again, the excuse was wearing a little thin. After all the warnings, after all the evidence, and even after all their previous bungles, it happened again, and in the most disastrous way possible.

For twenty-five million people – including more than fifteen million children - their names, dates of birth, addresses and National Insurance Numbers are up for grabs. None of those details can be changed easily, and most not at all. Then there are all child benefit numbers, and even bank and building society details. A windfall to any crooks who get hold of them now, and the bonus that they can easily wait up to eighteen years to sting some of their potential victims. As Vince Cable pointed out, with a single set of such useful identity details going for £60 a piece, this has a street value of £1.5 billion – with its potential value for fraud massively more.

And all this was because a junior official at a regional office was careless. How many officials? How many offices? And how do we even know that other such packages haven’t previously been lost, or intercepted and passed on? The answer is that the system is wide open, and there is simply know way of knowing. Even the Government didn’t hear about this disaster for three weeks after it happened (and it took them another week to warn the banks and then the police), so what if something were to go missing from a less conscientious office than the one that admitted it? And the data wasn’t even encrypted.

Perhaps we should just remove the title “Secretary” from all Labour Ministers until they can be trusted with it.

I’d say ‘You can’t imagine them being that careless with twenty-five million pounds, rather than twenty-five million people,’ but that was the week when recklessness came in twenty-fives for the Labour Government – twenty-five million people’s data recklessly endangered, and twenty-five billion pounds poured into Northern Rock, with no guarantee of the taxpayer ever getting that back either (and, of course, it’s a lot more by now). It looks like the CDs stand far less chance of recovery even than those billions. But so what if they do turn up again? After two months out and about, it’s impossible to believe they’d not have been copied.

It’s a cliché to say that ‘everyone knows someone who’s been touched by this’ over some disaster, but when half the population is involved, that’s a simple fact. Our sisters, sister-in-law, nephews and nieces are all at risk. A Labour Government that’s spent a decade whipping up fear of what might happen to children has at one stroke endangered every single one of them. It’s the most appalling proof possible that their rhetoric about “Hard-working families” was simple, cynical spin when they’ve so carelessly put at risk the lives and livelihoods of so many families. People are already terrified for their children, and then this happened. It may turn out to be the moment when Labour lost the next General Election.

Charlotte Gore explained how the Labour Government was once again breaking their own law, the Data Protection Act. Liberal Democrat Voice and Andy Mayer pointed out that no-one can possibly now be hoodwinked by the Labour Government’s grandiose claims for ID cards. It was such a disaster that even David Cameron couldn’t help but get it right, saying that Mr Brown wants to control everything, but can’t run anything. And then there was Nich Starling, so horrified at what this may have done to his young son that he identified it as “A reason to never ever vote Labour”:
“Today's admission by the government that personal data for 25 million people (and 7.5 million families) has been lost is not just going to cause problem in the short term for millions of people. It potentially causes problems for a whole generation of people for the rest of their lives.

“My details were on those disks. My national insurance number, my bank account, all my other personal details were there too. For me, it means that I am now very exposed to identity theft, card fraud, you name it, just about any sort of financial fraud is now, for me, a major problem… But what about my son. No, he is not safe too. His full name, his date of birth, both vital pieces of information, have also been given away. Who is to say that this information will not be of use too to a fraudster in 18 years time?

“The truth of it is that Labour have poisoned a generation of families and their children with the danger of ID fraud, and this will remain with us for the rest of out lives. This is something that Labour cannot and should not be forgiven for.”
And yet the Labour Government just don’t get it. They still claimed that such a thing was a one-off and procedures were in place so that it could never happen again. The tone was set that night (Tuesday 20th November) by Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jane Kennedy stepping out of her fantasy world to appear on Newsnight. “If HMRC had followed their own procedures and followed their own rules, we would not be having this debate this evening,” she smugged, completely failing to understand that putting all your money on perfection would be no reassurance for a government with a perfect record, and that claiming every bureaucrat will always follow the rules to the letter when even the Labour Government persistently breaks its own rules is likely to be met less with incredulity from families these days and more with their wish to do her lot actual harm.

The point is that no system can guarantee to follow all the rules, all the time. The answer is not more power and more rules, but to limit the power of government and open them to scrutiny by us, not let them scrutinise us as their whim demands. The evidence for that was vividly expounded that Newsnight by Professor Ross Anderson of the University of Cambridge, who recounted multiple and specific examples of how the Labour Government simply brushed aside multiple reports on the growing dangers in the Government’s data collection, from Cambridge, other experts and even from Parliament. “I don’t accept the charge that we brushed report after report aside at all,” said Jane Kennedy, brushing the lot aside without answering any of the points. The killer punch came in Professor Anderson’s reply to Jeremy Paxman’s final question:
“Is there anything that could be done to change the procedures that could make them safe?”

“No. Because the fundamental problem is this. If, for example, your medical records are available to the ten staff in your general practice, together with the reords of ten thousand other people, there might occasionally be a compromise, a careless receptionist, but it’s something that historically that has been manageable. However, if you take fifty million medical records and make them available to three hundred thousand people, there’s no way that you can create procedures that will protect that. There’s too valuable an asset, to which too many people have access.”
The Madness of Identity Cards

The moral of all this, then, is that when the Labour Government still claim that ID Cards and a National Identity Register are the answer to identity theft, the solution to immigration, the way to tackle terrorism and a foolproof cure for baldness, they’re not just lying but actively delusional. These will cost around twenty billion pounds, and around a hundred quid personally for each of us to possess the things under Labour’s orders, but the expense has never bothered them. They’ll allow the Labour Government and a million minions to poke and pry into every area of our lives at the touch of a button, but that’s always been the big appeal to them. But the other big appeal ID Cards and a National Identity Register have always had to the Labour Party is that all this made them sound ‘tough on crime’. As with any really big lie, it’s easy to buy into: something so expensive, so bossy, really must be useful (no wonder that opinion polls based on Labour rhetoric rather than experience used to show twice as many people supported them as opposed them). But now everyone knows what an astounding opportunity to fraudsters they are, with some opinion polls showing now that twice as many people oppose them as support them, and with the public finances going down the drain, why on Earth do Labour still stick to the idea? It’s proved not to be practical, with the evidence that it’s actively dangerous, and now that everyone knows that, it isn’t even populist any more. Now it can only be some weird psychological obsession by the Labour Government.

Just look at what happened with all those data disasters in HM Revenue and Customs, and the Department of Health, and now the Department of Transport. And they expect us to trust ID Cards and a National Identity Register to… The Home Office. The most accident-prone disaster zone of all government departments. What planet are they on?

When up to a million people will have access to this massive system, all it will take is one disgruntled, corrupt or simply incompetent employee to go one better than half the population and throw the whole nation’s identity details to the winds. The Labour Government are utterly reckless with all our private lives. They grab as much information as they can, and when they’re caught, start thinking half-heartedly about how to safeguard it. They tell us they have to have all our data to protect us against identity theft - and then do this!

The Labour Government pretend that ‘biometrics’ are a magic word to protect us, when in fact physical tests, too, can easily be faked. Even ministers admit computer face recognition software isn’t reliable, so we’ll all probably just be fingerprinted on a daily basis. As Dr Ben Goldacre testifies, in the same article where he tells you how to make a fake fingerprint as easily as a fruit chew: “every time you touch something, if your security systems rely on biometric ID, then you’re essentially leaving your pin number on a post-it note.” Or, of course, you could have a laser beam fired into your eye every time you want to go to the shops or the doctor’s. Just try selling that one as reassuring people, Mr Darling.

Still, if the Labour Government really do believe that the ID Card and National Identity Register system would be 100% perfect, why not put them to the test. Gordon Brown claims he has complete faith in the security of his expensive, intrusive, bullying data collection plans. So why not write and ask him to reassure you, by promising to resign if there’s ever a security cock-up with ID cards, the national identity register or central medical records, given that he claims another monumental failure is so impossible? After all, Mr Brown could hardly take his own livelihood less seriously than the tens of millions of people he’s recklessly endangered, could he? Or ask all those Labour MPs who vote through laws that fine us all thousands of pounds for not disclosing our personal details to the Labour Government. Fair enough, Ms or Mr Labour MP, you could tell them: that law stinging us for thousands of pounds’-worth of fines can stay, if you just balance it. If you’re so sure about the safety of the data we’ll be fined thousands for if we don’t give it to you, then let’s put it into law that each time the data’s lost or disclosed to someone it shouldn’t be, every MP who voted for the Labour Government’s data monstrosities should be personally fined the same thousands-of-pounds fee. Per individual affected. That might concentrate their minds, mightn’t it?

Or we could just save a lot of money and a lot more disasters by simply saying ‘No’ to ID Cards and the National Identity Register.

And What About the Election That Never Was?

One last thing. You might well be thinking, ‘With all these appalling cock-ups in the last couple of months, I bet Gordon Brown’s wishing he’d not chickened out of having the General Election, back when everything seemed to be going so well.’ Well, provided they could still have kept their data disasters under wraps as long as they did, he probably does wish that, yes. After all, talking up an impending election brilliantly managed to unite the Tories at just the moment they were falling apart, and then backing down from an election brilliantly managed to damage Mr Brown just as he was looking unbeatable. So the Labour Government’s stunning cock-ups clearly aren’t limited to data-handling, though I somehow feel less sorry for Mr Brown than for the twenty-five million people in fear of identity theft because of his government’s carelessness.

But why did Mr Brown call off that election, when everything was looking so good for him and the speculation had taken on such momentum that backing down was bound to hurt him? Well, in part he must simply have taken fright of gambling for political advantage with the power to call an election years before he should have done. But there’s another reason, and one that in all the words written to jeer at him, I’ve not seen anyone else mention. Back in October, when all this reached fever pitch, we were in the middle of a postal strike that looked set to be long and bitter – and went on in areas like my own for weeks after it was theoretically suspended. The Labour Government has put huge store by postal votes, and they would have been completely at the mercy of the post unions. And could anything be a worse backdrop to an election campaign than the Labour Government, now back to being as reliant as ever on money from the big trades unions, being helpless in the face of a strike that hits everyone in the country? What a glorious opportunity for the other Conservatives that would have been.

Poor Mr Brown, then. The disastrous blunder of his losing those vital discs in the post may have sealed his fate when he eventually does dare to call the General Election. But the Curse of the Post may have struck earlier and still more fatally when it made it impossible to call a General Election at the time he could have won.

Update: you know how the Labour Government had thrown £25 billion into propping up Northern Rock by this time last month – you know, about the same money we spend on defence and twice that we spend on primary schools – and all with no guarantee the taxpayer will get a penny of it back? Well, it’s grown a bit. By this evening, the Labour Government has now handed out £57 billion. Crikey. The BBC reports that’s £2,000 for every person in Britain, with – still – no guarantee of getting a penny of it back. How stupid is Gordon Brown? As Vince Cable points out:
“The government now seems to have got the worst of all possible worlds. It’s effectively nationalised the liabilities of the bank, while at the same time it doesn’t control it, it doesn’t own it, and if it is sold then all of the upside, all of the capital gains will accrue to speculative investors and not to the taxpayers.”

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